We're all familiar with Shakespeare's iconic star-crossed romance, "Romeo & Juliet". I read the epic tragedy in high school and empathized with the couple's desperation and blind infatuation, masquerading as love. It couldn't have ended any other way -- the reckless abandon in which these two teens threw themselves into their relationship, despite their families, despite everything, spelled disaster from the word "go". But you're left hoping maybe they could work it out. Maybe it didn't have to end with death and suicide. Maybe, under different circumstances, they could have run away and lived, if not happily ever after, at least with each other in a peaceful situation that didn't involve anger, murder, and family vendettas.
Exiles, the brainchild of Pretty Little Liars actress Troian Bellisario, envisions just this sort of future for Romeo and Juliet. Set in the starkness of the Mojave Desert in California, the newlyweds escape their circumstances to set up home in a desolate trailer, far from any civilization, or humanity. And left with themselves, the couple realizes that their true love is a sad lie. The relationship never has a chance to get off the ground -- because Romeo and Juliet are in love with the idea of being in love.
As a teen, Romeo and Juliet seemed to me to have the most beautiful love story ever. Being willing to die for someone else is something that I couldn't imagine at the time, and it's hard for me to imagine that depth of love now. But for teens, when everything is raw and immediate and emotional, you do buy into, and believe, that if you can overcome any odds, you will be promised the "happily ever after" that the stories told us would happen to good people who followed the fairy-tale script.
Bellisario plays a vibrant and three-dimensional Juliet, taking Shakespeare's character and transforming her into a young girl struggling with her natural logical demeanour in order to live in her lover's fantasy. Shawn Coffey, as Romeo, accurately portrays the desperation of a young man who is really still a sheltered little boy. Romeo and Juliet don't know what it's like to have to deal with conflict, with hunger, with poverty. They have never had to fend for themselves, and they don't know how to deal with the "after" -- the denouement after the action. Little fights, annoying behaviours -- they're amplified in the heavy silence of the desert. Being together does become the worst thing -- because they are so very utterly alone.
Directed by Thomas Bertlesen, the film's intense 25-minute journey takes you from idealistic happily-ever-after to anxious, desperate climax. Despite all the space in the desert, the lovers are trapped in their own failed dreams. That is the most realistic part of this movie -- and a fitting end to Shakespeare's most famous tragedy.
Bellisario's strong writing and Bertlesen's masterful direction really make this film what it is -- a realistic portrayal of sheltered children trying to spin an infatuation into a love story. The saving grace of this otherwise quite sad story is the growth the characters show while they struggle to keep their love afloat - from idealistic children, they grow, and realize that life experience is part of what makes love work. Running away and giving up everything rarely works for even the strongest of couples. It can, however, build strength of character, and enable a different sort of story.
This is indeed a different sort of story -- Bellisario pulls us into her Shakespeare headcanon and makes it truth. This becomes Romeo and Juliet's future with one masterful stroke of the pen.
You can watch Exiles on the film's official site, here.
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